When Did You Last Say “I Was Wrong?”

Think of a time you’ve been in a position of authority. A common feeling in those circumstances is feeling like you were expected to know it all, worrying when you don’t, and faking it to show strength and stability for those you are managing. Faking it can work well in a lot of situations, but the end result is leaders believing their own hype, sometimes with problematic or tragic outcomes. Confidence is important in leadership, but false confidence can lead to downfall. “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom,” Mahatma Gandhi once taught.

If you’re a regular Building Bridges Leadership reader, you’ll have seen a few articles in which I mention that I am immune to the effects of poison ivy, and that working on pulling the poison ivy around our family’s home has helped me to reflect on issues of privilege and responsibility. Well, I was wrong. Not about the reflections – those still hold true – but I was wrong about being immune to the effects of poison ivy, as I found out in rather dramatic fashion over the last few weeks. Perhaps my body was gradually worn down by exposure, or perhaps I was wrong all along and I’ve just been lucky. I’ll never know, but either way, it’s taught me a lot about humility each time someone responds to my news with the question, “Didn’t you write an article exactly about this?!”

As Forbes, Fast Company, and others have posited over the years, humility is a valuable leadership trait, noticeable and noteworthy when it’s seen partly because it’s seen so rarely. Our pride tends to get in the way of saying “I was wrong.” After all, it’s easy to believe that admitting one error might lead others to question every decision you make as a leader. In fact, it’s the opposite. Admitting error shows that you are human, and that you know your humanity. This builds a deeper, more relatable level of trust, and invites collaboration and contribution which builds up the team as a whole. A 2016 Duke University study also showed that leaders who display more humility are able to think more critically about information presented to them and were more able to identify ‘fake news.’

Additionally, humility and confidence are not mutually exclusive; in displaying authentic humility, you can build a clearer sense of confidence in your decisions, and that confidence can also help you to show more humility with those who look to you for leadership.

So what might displaying humility look like for us this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Take on modeling humility this week: 

  1. Find at least one situation where you can say to your team “I was wrong.” For the most part, it doesn’t matter if this is big or small; the act of saying admitting a mistake is the key. This could be in a meeting, over Slack, or some other method where you’re in touch with the rest of your team. Avoid over-dramatizing or making a bigger deal out of it than the situation warrants, but be genuine. Be open to any response you might get – even unexpected ones.
  2. Pay attention to feedback and criticism you’ve received recently. Paying attention to it doesn’t mean you have to agree with it 100% (or at all!), but it’s always worth reflecting on comments people make to you (or about you). If you notice patterns, take some time to ask yourself if these are patterns you appreciate or find challenging.
  3. Sit in liminal spaces. In our culture of instant results, it can be hard to sit in a situation where we don’t know the answers. Practice not looking for answers right away (wonder for a while rather than Googling!), and pay attention to what happens when you sit in liminal spaces.
  4. Practice passing the baton. If you are in a situation where you usually make the decisions, invite others to contribute ideas, input, and perspectives. Allow them to make their own choices; you may find that what results is more fruitful than what you would have chosen yourself. Fight the tendency to be critical, and allow yourself to be inspired.

In keeping with the theme, we certainly don’t claim to have all the answers – what other tips do you have for modeling humility? Let us know in our Facebook group. We’d love to hear from you!

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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